MAX JOSEPH A key word in Verdi’s Otello is Moro, the Moor. In recent years, the practice of blacking up has become less acceptable, so how have you approached this visually and from a production standpoint?
AMÉLIE NIERMEYER Less acceptable? That’s putting it mildly. I’m shocked that today some productions still don’t think twice about using blacked-up Otellos, despite this kind of latent racism having been called out years ago. Nowadays it’s obviously vital not to fall into this trap. But the work isn’t actually about skin colour or clothing, but rather about being an outsider. A contemporary interpretation should communicate this by means of Otello’s interaction with his environment. You don’t need black makeup or exotic robes. First and foremost he’s an expert and complete nerd in the field of battle strategy. Setting aside skin colour, we see his returning from war, having experienced terrible things, as the sole reason for his difficulties reintegrating into society.
JONAS KAUFMANN Of course, in this age of political correctness, the question of whether Aida or Otello should black up still sparks more debate than ever. Before my first performances as Otello in London last year I was asked about it constantly. But it helps to know that, in England, the term ‘moorish people’ was used for a long time to refer not only to blacks, but to all non-natives irrespective of origin and skin colour. They were simply the foreigners. However, in the German-speaking world, ‘moorish’ was used for many years specifically to describe blacks. An example of this would be in The Magic Flute: “The evil blackamoor demanded love”.
AN Which doesn’t make our job any easier with regard to Otello. It exploits the cliché of the foreigner as a savage who can’t control his emotions – jealous, prone to violent outbursts and whose envy leads him to commit murder.
JK But his roots aren’t completely irrelevant. Because he originates from Arabia, he carries with him the mystique of ‘distant lands, unfamiliar customs and strange laws’. Explicitly, this means if his wife commits adultery, in his culture he has the right to kill her. No need for a judge or a defence lawyer. He may have established himself successfully within Western society, but Otello’s sense of justice is rooted in his Arab culture and he thus considers himself blameless. Killing Desdemona evokes in him a sense of pride rather than guilt. So, I have to ask myself: is the scandal of the work that he kills his wife as a result of his culture’s justice system, or is it not far more scandalous that society drives him to the belief that ‘honour killing’ is the only logical solution?
Honour killing following a failure to integrate – the subject matter couldn’t be more timely.
AN Hugely timely, particularly in terms of the social pressure within male-dominated societies. For it isn’t simply Jago’s scheming which compels Otello to restore his honour in the most brutal way, but rather a masculine society in which jealousy and violence are constantly being whipped up, as we see in the drinking scene in the first act. The thought of facing this society, to which Otello longs to belong, as a shamed and cheated husband, is inconceivable.
JK As an outsider he is under added pressure and is thus desperate to fit in. Both as an army general and as a civilian he has gone to considerable lengths to be accepted into society. Yet, at the mere suggestion of his wife’s infidelity, he is relabelled as the foreign savage.
Which scenes would you say are the most outrageous or disturbing?
JK The most shocking moment for me is when Jago and Otello, after the apparent evidence of the handkerchief has come to light and before the Ambassador arrives, discuss how Otello should kill Desdemona. Like two butchers deliberating on where to make the cut in order to ensure the best-tasting meat.
AN I find it particularly disturbing that musically, Verdi, at first glance, appears to sympathise with Otello in the way that he directs the audience’s sympathy towards Otello at the end. Of course it’s tragic that somebody who has not been able to integrate into society firstly commits murder and then suicide, but I can only sympathise up to a point. Verdi wasn’t looking to trivialise the situation either. Allowing oneself to develop empathy towards a character, does not mean condoning any acts of cruelty they may have committed.
JK Well, when somebody descends from success and happiness into a downward spiral of jealousy and insanity then we, the audience, do empathise with that. That’s why I think it’s also very important how the character of Jago is constructed. If I had a typical villain next to me then the audience’s reaction would be to ask why Otello was so stupid as to trust this fellow. If, however, it’s the best buddy and a squeaky clean one at that – someone who you’d never believe would be capable of such deviance, then the story works. And that also means you sympathise with Otello.
AN Ever since Aristotle’s Poetics, sympathy has been a much-discussed theme in theatre. When emotions force rationality to take a back seat, that can even be dangerous. Why should head and heart contradict one another anyway? Do we really want the audience only to feel sympathy towards him?
JK Yes, absolutely!
AN But I do think that Otello acts so brutally, that in the scenes where he humiliates Desdemona it is possible for the audience to distance themselves from him. Just as you would distance yourself from a man who beats and abuses his wife, even when afterwards he regrets his behaviour and whines about how sorry he is – only to do the same thing again a short time later. Shakespeare and Verdi observe the mechanism of this deeply disturbed behaviour extremely well. But the audience’s understanding and sympathy shouldn’t stretch so far as to say at the end, “Oh dear, poor Otello!” The character I really feel sorry for in this scene is the victim – Desdemona.
JK The fact that the audience’s sympathy for Desdemona is often limited, is also down to the characterisation. You want to constantly shout, “Don’t you see that you’re being manipulated? And don’t you realise that the word ‘Cassio’ is the ultimate provocation for Otello? Do you really have to keep on pressing this button and then acting surprised when he finally snaps?” You can definitely draw a parallel between this and women who keep coming back to the men who have hit them.
AN Yes, I often wonder with Desdemona why she doesn’t stop going on about Cassio much sooner. It would be very wrong to suggest that she is somehow stupid or naïve and therefore it is her own fault that Otello treats her so badly. This would be a grave misunderstanding. She is a highly reflective, self-determined woman who married the outsider of her own free will. Nevertheless, I can also see a personality disorder in Desdemona. Maybe out of defiance, but definitely out of a contradictory leaning towards self-destruction, she wants to prove that Otello can become a better person through her. But this is something no love can achieve. The fact that she pursues this agenda despite noticing Otello becoming ever angrier is the chief characteristic of her personality disorder.